Flawed History: Mother Flawless Sabrina and Queer (In)visibility
Flawless Sabrina, the iconic queer activist and drag pioneer, died on November 18th, 2017, at age 78.
“There Can Only Be One Queen”
Admittedly, I did not know of Flawless Sabrina until I watched the ACLU’s collaborative video on the history of transgender rights and looked up her name. Queer history, especially the stories of gender nonconforming people, is often not readily visible, even to those of us who actively seek it out.
Though I studied the photography of Diane Arbus in graduate school, I had no recollection of her now iconic portraits of Flawless. Either I never saw them, or I glossed over them with little to no understanding of the importance of the subject captured. Recently, when my students created a poster exhibit for LGBTQ History Month, featuring significant queer cultural figures, I made sure Flawless Sabrina was included.
Some people are handed their history in heavy books with hundreds of unnaturally smooth pages. Other people’s histories are kept only in the minds of those who lived them… The 20th-century triumphs and plummeting failures of sexual-and-gender-variant Americans weren’t always well kept; sometimes transgender people are willfully removed from history.
Flawless’ death, and the vibrancy of her life, draws attention to the fact that queerness is often scoured from the pages of history or outright rejected. Queers often discover our pioneers and heroes later than we should — and when we do, they are often no longer with us. “There can only be one queen,” Flawless announces in her 1968 documentary The Queen. And there was. And now she is gone.
“A Traveling, Countercultural Transgender Collective”
Norm is a setting on a dryer.
— Flawless Sabrina
Flawless Sabrina, born Jack Doroshow in 1939, owned and operated the National Academy, a nation-wide drag organization that ran between 1959 and 1969, putting on as many as 46 shows and competitions per year. While running the Academy, Flawless also earned a degree in Psychology in 1963. At this time, cross-dressing was a felony in the United States, and Flawless estimated she was arrested over 100 times. In our post-RuPaul’s Drag Race era, where drag has become mainstream and appears on television screens in households throughout the country, it is difficult to conceptualize that in mid-twentieth century America, gender nonconformity was criminalized.
Beginning in the 1850s, U.S. cities passed a rash of anti-cross-dressing ordinances. These statutes, often described as laws against “masquerading,” or presenting oneself in public as something one was not, typically specified that individuals must wear at least three pieces of clothing that corresponded to their legal gender, as listed on their identity documents. For example, a city ordinance passed in San Diego, California in 1966 prohibited people from “appearing in a public place, or in a place open to public view, in apparel customarily worn by the opposite sex, with the intent to deceive another person for the purpose of committing an illegal act.”
Historians speculate that the rise in anti-masquerading ordinances can be attributed to changes in the family structure due to industrialization, an emerging urban gay subculture, backlash against first wave feminism — as feminists often critiqued garments such as petticoats and corsets that limited women’s mobility and contributed to their general oppression — and an influx in immigrants from non-Western countries who wore unfamiliar styles of dress that challenged American notions of masculinity and femininity. Throughout the twentieth century, gender nonconforming people were often subjected to harassment, police brutality, strip searches, physical and sexual violence, and imprisonment.
In addition to anti-masquerading statutes, many states had anti-sodomy laws on the books. Such laws typically targeted sex acts between persons of the same gender, though the concept of sodomy, which originates in ancient Christian discourse, can more broadly refer to any sex act that is “deviant,” or non-procreative in nature. It was not until 2003, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, that anti-sodomy laws were invalidated nationally.
The National Academy also came on the heels of a purge of gays and lesbians from the federal government, retrospectively referred to as the “Lavender Scare,” a term coined by the historian David K. Johnson. Paralleling McCarthyism and the heteronormative culture of the 1950s, the Lavender Scare was a direct result of Executive Order 10450 issued by President Eisenhower, which specified who could obtain a federal security clearance. The order named as “security risks” Communists, subversives, and those who “behaved badly”: the dishonest, the immoral, drunks and drug users, and sexual perverts. The logic was that “sexual perverts,” particularly those who worked in the State Department, were security risks because their sexual identities could be used against them by enemies of the United States (namely Communists) in order to obtain classified information.
In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) published the first edition of its guide to mental illness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-I). The manual, which was a scant 130 pages in length, attempted to provide standardized categories for mental health professionals to use when diagnosing mental illnesses. The DSM-I contained a section on “Sexual Deviation,” which included “pathological” behaviors such as homosexuality, transvestism, and pedophilia. In the second edition of the manual (DSM-II), published in 1968, homosexuality was given its own diagnostic code distinct from general “sexual deviation.”
Some psychiatrists, such as Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides, built entire careers on defining and “treating” homosexuality as a pathology. Working against the conservative backdrop of 1950s America and McCarthyism, these psychiatrists saw homosexuality as a condition derived from improper parenting and skewed notions of gender roles that could be corrected through psychoanalysis and other invasive methods such as electro shock, insulin shock, or aversion therapies. It was not until 1973, following years of intense lobbying on the part of queer activists, that the APA voted to remove homosexuality as a diagnostic category from the DSM.
The National Academy is also significant within the context of American transgender history. Drag and transgender culture historically overlap to an extent they do not today. While some performers were gay men who engaged in drag as a transgressive art form, drag shows and competitions often provided a space where transgender women and trans feminine people could explore their gender identities beyond the harsh judgement of the American mainstream.
Flawless’ National Academy, in short, operated amidst a context in which gender and sexual nonconformity was considered both an illness and a crime. That Flawless, and others like her, were willing to chafe against the powers of legal and medical normalization is a testament to her spirit and courage.
Tourjee describes the significance of Flawless’ National Academy as follows:
Sabrina was a central figure in a renegade transgender movement that traveled the American underground. Through her drag organization, the National Academy, Sabrina came head-to-head with a monolithic American majority that loathed gender diversity… There were at least 100 people on Sabrina’ s payroll, most of them queer in one way or another. Together they ran 46 shows a year, which means nearly every week for a decade there was a traveling, countercultural transgender collective.
The National Academy, then, functioned as a moving site of trans and gender nonconforming resistance, operating beneath the veneer of American heterosexuality and gender conformity, as a subversive performance troupe of sorts. The Academy also nurtured drag stars such as cult figure Divine, AKA Harris Glenn Milstead, who went on to become a member of the legendary director John Waters’ acting group and star in his films Pink Flamingos (1972) — in which Flawless had a cameo — and Female Trouble (1974).
A piece of this history is preserved in Flawless’ documentary The Queen (1968), produced with the help of Andy Warhol, which covers one pageant from the National Academy’s annual circuit.
“Things Nobody Would See”
I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.
— Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus (1923–1971), the best known woman photographer of her generation, produced several evocative portraits of Flawless Sabrina. Arbus moved from a career in fashion photography to create the portraits of marginalized people — sideshow freaks, persons with disabilities, gender nonconforming people — she would become known for. One can imagine the subjects who populate Arbus’ photos are not dissimilar from the performers in Flawless’ traveling transgender collective. Even when she photographed so-called “normates,” Arbus possessed a knack for making the normal appear queer, thus calling into question the validity of these categories.
Though Arbus’ portraits of Flawless do not rank among her most well-known photographs, their singular and haunting beauty is undeniable. In one photograph, Flawless holds court in Central Park against a background of architecture and skeletal trees. Dressed in an elegant black coat and clutching a brass candelabra like a scepter in her left hand, she appears radiant, yet entirely out of place. Her coiffed plume of blonde hair gives the effect of a flower — a daffodil, perhaps — blooming in spite of its harsh surroundings.
In another, Flawless sits posed in an armchair like the queen she was. Her hand tenderly grasps a daffodil, the very flower her entire presence invokes in the Central Park portrait. Something impossible has managed to flower. Through their play of shadow and light, ordinary and extraordinary, Arbus’ photos invoke the struggles that lurked beyond Flawless’ effervescent persona.
Arbus was often criticized, most notably by the writer Susan Sontag, for sensationalizing — and thereby further dehumanizing — her already marginal subjects. Flawless does appear out of place in Arbus’ portraits. But the photos, overall, give the impression of resilience, of someone that should not exist, yet persists in being exactly who and what they are.
“Like a Cork in the Ocean”
What does it mean to say that history is flawed? The word flaw comes from Middle English, perhaps Old Norse, originally referring to a flake of snow, a fragment or a splinter broken off from the whole. It also meant, in Middle English, a spark of fire. Only later did the word come to signify a defect or imperfection. Queer history is often like that flake, that fragment, that spark, floating untethered to a larger narrative or story.
Flawless Sabrina chose her name as a subversive reaction to 1950s America. She was “flawless” decades before pop star Beyoncé Knowles-Carter claimed the word as a feminist moniker. For a queer and gender nonconforming person to label herself as “flawless,” when society would see her as anything but, was revolutionary. Flawless was a hero, a mother to queer culture, who did not necessarily see herself as such. In an interview with her spiritual granddaughter, Zackery Drucker, Flawless remarked:
I just was like a cork in the ocean, and by serendipity became involved in something, which in retrospect looks like pioneering, but I don’t think it was anything of the sort. It was just cultural change, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time — or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your point of view.
When she retired from the drag scene in 1969, Mother Flawless went on to work as a consultant on Hollywood films featuring, or seeking to avoid, the topic of homosexuality, influencing such notable pictures as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and Myra Breckinridge (1970).
In her later years, Flawless got involved in activism and had her felonies overturned. She worked with then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to allow transgender people to change the gender marker on their U.S. passports and gave tarot readings, a tradition she learned from her grandmother, in her Upper East Side apartment. She also spent much of her time occupying the role of elder, mentoring the next generation of queer and trans activists, such as Drucker, Tourjee, and ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio.
I imagine Flawless sitting in her 72nd Street apartment, reading the tarot, sipping tea, pondering what is to come. She is surrounded by the bright ephemera of a life well lived. I envision her seeing a future where her many queer children are able to visit her archive and glimpse a glittering splinter of their history.